It may have been the greatest gathering of techie brainiacs in county history: The fourth annual Broadband Forum, held at Fortuna's River Lodge in August, attracted dozens of tech-oriented business owners, elected officials and -- significantly -- representatives from 11 broadband service providers. If your BlackBerry were to go haywire, this was the place to be.
It was no coincidence, then, that Gregg Foster chose this gathering for his big announcement. Our days of relying on a single fiber optic line would soon be over, said Foster, director of business development for Lost Coast Communications. A San Francisco company named IP Networks had agreed to install a second line using PG&E rights of way along Highway 36. If major broadband users like AT&T and Suddenlink would sign on, we'd have our high-speed backup in no time, meaning the next time some raging fire or errant tractor blade snapped our umbilical info-cord, the county wouldn't come to a screeching halt.
Turns out that was a big "if." IP Networks President and Founder Gary George told the Journal last week that not a single customer has signed on the dotted line. His company has already spent tens of thousands of dollars on design, engineering, surveys and investigative work, but George said that without a firm commitment from at least three major players, the project doesn't make financial sense. "We're ready to jump on as soon as we know the customers are there," he said. "But this is a very large capital expenditure, so we want to know that at the end of the day some of our expenses are covered."
By "customers" he means major wholesalers, not household consumers -- the idea being for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and other high-traffic Net users to purchase access to the new line in addition to the existing line owned by AT&T. Such redundancy is the only way to immediately guarantee continuous broadband service, which has become critical to many if not most local businesses, schools, hospitals and government agencies. Construction was scheduled to begin last October with a target completion date in the first quarter of 2009.
George could only speculate that the economic downturn is responsible for the delay. Nondisclosure agreements kept him from revealing the potential customers he's lined up, though he said there's reason to believe at least three are still on board. Asked how many he needs to green-light the project, George said, "Three would do it."
One of the companies that expressed interest at August's broadband forum was national cable provider Suddenlink Communications, which also offers high-speed Internet and home telephone services. Reached last week, Suddenlink's North Coast Director of Operations Wendy Purnell indicated that the company is still "in discussions" with IP Networks but could neither confirm nor deny that they've committed to the project. "We're very interested in a redundant path, as I think most businesses are," Purnell said. "The last time I spoke to [George] he said he was really waiting for his anchor tenant."
That "anchor tenant" appears to be AT&T, which, as the primary local broadband supplier, has much to gain from a redundant line. Last week, AT&T spokesman John Britton told the Journal, "We are committed to that [project]," but he then immediately backpedaled. "Last I heard we were committed to it," he said. "Obviously capital projects can be reevaluated at any time, [but] last time I checked we'd committed to being a tenant on that line." He called back later in the week to clarify -- sort of: "We're continuing to talk to this group [IP Networks]." Britton explained that he couldn't say any more, because "It would be inappropriate to negotiate in the media."
This isn't the first mixed message from AT&T in recent months. Suddenlink has been stymied by an unexplained eight-month delay on an order for more bandwidth. The company needs a new circuit from AT&T to alleviate slow download speeds during peak traffic hours. In an October memo to customers, Pete Abel, a representative from Suddenlink's corporate headquarters in St. Louis, Mo., expressed his frustration with AT&T (though he took care not to mention the company by name, referring to them as "the only vendor in the area that can provide [bandwidth]). "Typically, this vendor fulfills our orders in a matter of days," the memo states. "However, in this particular case -- for reasons that have still not been adequately explained to us by the vendor -- it has not yet fulfilled our order, and it continues to tell us there will be further delays. Our repeated communications regarding the urgency of the situation have not persuaded the vendor to move faster."
When reached last week, Abel said the circuit has still not arrived but that AT&T has given Suddenlink "a firm order commitment at this point," and he expects the order to be filled "sometime in the next month or so." In the meantime, according to Purnell, the local system manager, Suddenlink has alleviated most of the congestion issues by adding smaller circuits until the big one arrives. "I wish I could speculate on the delay," Purnell said. "We're looking at everything we can possibly do to resolve the problems we have."
Britton said he was unaware of Suddenlink's order delay but insisted, "We are very committed to our wholesale business." Earlier this month, however, AT&T announced it would cut 12,000 jobs and devote less money to capital expenditures in 2009 due to the poor economy. While most of the layoffs will occur in AT&T's traditional local and long-distance segments, industry executives have noted that AT&T and other phone companies have been reducing capital expenditures for months and delaying projects, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Foster, who has been working with Lost Coast Communications General Manager Patrick Cleary on this issue for years, said the ball is now in the telecom giant's court. "AT&T is the big player here," Foster said. "We're relying on them. They have the ability to make or break this redundancy thing."
That doesn't necessarily mean that the IP Networks plan is the only option. Several other proposals have been made over the years, including burying a second line near the existing one or bringing one down from Crescent City.
The capacity for redundancy already exists in Humboldt County -- and indeed is being utilized by Caltrans and several local businesses -- through wireless service, which uses high-powered antennas to cover line-of-sight environments. (In other words, everyone within range who doesn't live in a deep valley, a cave or under a rock can receive coverage.) 101Netlink began retailing wireless broadband almost three years ago and has steadily increased its service area to incorporate most of Humboldt County. "Fiber is a good idea," said 101Netlink partner Seth Johannesen, "but I haven't seen a business model that seems to be viable." For most companies, wireless isn't financially viable either. Companies that want redundancy have to pay for AT&T's service and 101Netlink's simultaneously, and not many are willing to do that. "We've offered a redundant link to Suddenlink for three years," Johannesen said. "They weren't interested in paying for it."
Some folks are looking to the incoming administration to carry some weight. Local Web developer Bob Morse points out that governments in other industrialized countries have created subsidies or tax incentives to lower the cost of broadband service. Barack Obama has promised that broadband connectivity will be a priority, which Morse thinks is only appropriate. "I really think the government needs to be involved here," Morse said. "If we're talking about investing in infrastructure, well, [broadband access] is crucial 21st century infrastructure."
Not everyone believes Obama can fulfill his promises in this arena, at least not anytime soon. Chris Crawford, president of Justice Served, a court management and technology consulting firm, said that he, for one, won't be holding his breath "waiting for Uncle Sam to show up. ... With the long list of deliverables awaiting this administration, our local broadband issues probably aren't a high priority," Crawford said.
Humboldt Area Foundation Executive Director Peter Pennekamp, who recently served on the board of a state government task force that studied California's broadband infrastructure, struck a more hopeful note. Regardless of what happens with AT&T, IP Networks or any of the other players currently on the broadband field, Pennekamp is confident that a solution will be found. Humboldt County, he said, is more organized and galvanized around this issue than any other rural area in the state. "We really are the center of attention for connectivity in rural California," Pennekamp said. With the rate of developing technology, he added, "it's just a matter of time before we have good coverage up here."
Foster, on the other hand, is not content to just sit back and wait. "The economy has changed," he said. "Our needs have not. Our community needs to keep saying to AT&T that they need to address this issue. It's absolutely critical."